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The Backyard Birder, Issue May 2013
May 10, 2013

The Story Behind all the Chirps, Squawks, Tweets, and Songs

Few things are more soothing to the soul than the sound of birds singing. Bird songs mark seasons, indicate time of day, and can indicate impending threats and even changes in the weather.

Every bird has its own unique call – several calls in fact. Learning bird calls is the ultimate in bird watching skills. Even when you cannot see the bird, you can still identify by its unique call.

But why do birds sing? What is the story behind the chirps, squawks, and songs?

Birds sing and call to:

  • Attract mates
  • Define territory
  • Communicate with family
  • Alert other birds to a predator
  • Share information about food

Much like the human language, the language of birds is quite complex. Many songs and calls have multiple meanings. Some species have literally hundreds of calls while others have just a few.

Songs versus Calls

Songs and calls have different characteristics and different purposes. Songs tend to be musical, complex, and long. Calls tend to be short and sharp. It is the difference between conversation and commands.

In most species, only males sing songs. Songs vary from region to region, even among the same species, much as human dialects vary region to region. When they sing, it is typically to attract a mate. As such, older male birds tend to have more complex and varied songs and then their younger male counterparts. Songs are one of the ways females judge health and maturity. Males also use songs to define territory and bond with mates or other birds.

Calls are primarily informational. They are usually short, sweet, and typically not related breeding. Calls are how birds communicate sources of food, warnings to stay away, their location, etc. All bird calls are present tense. Unlike human language, birds do not have the capacity to communicate past tense or future tense – they live in the moment.

Types of Songs

Courtship Serenades

As mentioned before, it is typically males that sing songs, and they typically sing because they are in search of a mate. Courtship serenades can be repetitive bars, or long-lasting melodies that go on for several minutes. It works, because when songs are broadcast near known nesting sites, females show up to see who is singing. Of course, they are disappointed when there are no male birds to be seen.

Dawn Songs

Birds love to sing energetically in the morning. Dawn songs typically start about a half-hour before the sun rises and continue on into the early morning. At this time of day, the birds are literally talking to each other in their own complex languages.

Drumming

When birds drum, they use their beaks or wings to create a rhythmic “song” rather than a melody. Grouses, woodpeckers, and Wilson’s Snipes are examples of birds that use drumming instead of singing to attract mates and declare territory.

Types of Calls

Alert! Alert!

Most birds emit a specific sharp call when there is a nearby predator such as a raptor, snake, or kitty-cat. Many species of birds know each other’s calls and will work together to mob the intruder or hide.

Contact calls

These are calls that help birds keep in touch with one another. Most species emit calls that are short and high-pitched because they travel long distances. Some species develop unique calls that are used to identify mates in a large flock.

Follow

This is a distinctive type of contact call specifically used by migrating birds to say that it is time to go, or follow me this way.

Mangia! One of the most notable calls birds use are those to announce food. If one bird finds food, it will emit a specific call to tell the rest of its flock where to find dinner. Baby birds also use a specific type of food call called a begging call. This is how they let parents know that they are hungry – as if their parents did not already know.

How do they Make Sounds?

Near the bottom of the windpipe is a sound producing organ unique to birds called the syrinx. It divides bronchial tubes and works by vibrating the drum-like membrane as air moves through. Muscles control the tension on the organ, which is how birds can produce so many sounds. In most species, the syrinx is divided between two compartments and can be controlled separately, giving birds extraordinary ability to diversify calls and songs.

Some birds learn to sing by practice and coaching while others inherit the ability. Most songbirds learn to sing over time. Like humans, there is a time when they are young that is best for learning. Most species are predisposed to learn their own species songs and calls. Much like humans, they learn from tutoring, listening, and attempting to mimic the songs they hear around them.

Calls, in addition to visual cues, are an advanced skill all bird watchers should learn. Next time you hear a beautiful bird song, you will know that there is a lifetime of learning that goes into it. Perhaps you will be able to identify distinct songs of regular visitors to your yard, as each bird is unique.

Subscribe to our blog! There are daily updates from wonderful folks sending in photos, needing help identifying the latest bird that have appeared in their back yard. It is help and be helped in our forums, as our readers identify the names of the unknown birds, and share their stories.

Happy Birding!

Susan


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